Guest Article: History of Nippon Connection

By Alex Zahlten

Nippon Connection has a difficult relationship with anniversaries. During the 10-year
anniversary festival in 2010, a volcanic eruption in Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland, led to a gigantic ash
cloud and the closure of European airspace, stranding over two dozen Japanese filmmakers in
Frankfurt for over a week after the festival had ended. This year Nippon Connection celebrates
its twentieth anniversary online due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
These were unusual events, but it is an unusual festival. The largest festival for Japanese film in
the world, it has always been run entirely on a volunteer basis. Not only a film festival, it has
always included a large number of accompanying workshops, lectures, performances, concerts,
and art exhibitions. Its mission has been to present the most interesting work from every section
of the vast film industry in Japan. Instead of a specific type of film – arthouse, fantastic film, or
other categories – the festival presents the entire range of film in Japan: from blockbusters to
“amateur” (jishu) film, experimental animation, pink films and documentaries, independent
cinema and anime.
Nippon Connection has transformed over time. It currently shows around 130 films to (usually)
an audience of 16.000 over six days. For several years from 2004 the “Nippon Connection on
Tour” program traveled through North and South America and throughout Europe on an annual
basis.
But the very first edition of Nippon Connection in the year 2000 was never planned as a
recurring event. A group of film students from the Goethe University Frankfurt got together to
show films they themselves wanted to see for a one-off event. Using the space of the student
community center of the university they showed thirteen films and invited three guests, among
them director Yamashita Nobuhiro with his graduation film Hazy Life (Donten Seikatsu). The
response was overwhelming – audiences streamed in, and the team had to organize additional
late-night screenings to satisfy the crowds. Once the dust had settled the idea for an annual
festival was born.
The years since have been full of exciting projects and collaborations. From 2002 the festival
added its Nippon Digital section (now Nippon Visions), and the German Film Museum has
screened the festival’s annual retrospective since 2003. In 2003 and 2005 the festival initiated
two music albums that included European musicians working with sound samples recorded in
Tokyo – and Japanese filmmakers then using the musical pieces as raw material for short films
then shown at the festival (the “Exchanging Tracks” project). In 2007 the first Kinema Club

Conference for Film and Moving Images from Japan held in Europe took place at Nippon
Connection, and it has taken place at NC twice more since then (this year’s plans for the
twentieth Kinema Club conference to be held at Nippon Connection had to regrettably be
cancelled).
Nippon Connection could not exist without its collaborations with partners in Japan – the
Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, the Planet Film Archives, the Japan
Visualmedia Translation Academy, the Skip City International D-Cinema Festival, the Yubari
International Fantastic Film Festival, the Pia Film Festival, Image Forum, and many, many
others.
It also could not exist without the support of many figures in the Japanese film world, and the
enthusiasm of the filmmakers. Much has changed there as well. While in the early years the
festival often had to hunt down independent filmmakers and convince them to subtitle their films
and maybe travel abroad to attend the festival, young filmmakers have become much more
savvy and proactive in bringing their films to the world – hopefully a development Nippon
Connection had some part in. It was already clear in the early 2000s that female filmmakers
were on the rise in terms of numbers, and that has continued; Nippon Connection has been
proud to feature the early work of many of the incredible talents active today, including Yuki
Tanada, Satoko Yokohama, Mari Asato, and many others (Satoko Yokohama’s film German +
Ame (2007) was even partially inspired by her visit to the festival with her film Chiemi and
Kokkunpatcho (2004)).
In 2013 the festival moved to a new location, the Mousonturm facilities. This shifted the optics of
the festival from its DIY look and intense hothouse-energy-in-crammed-spaces feel to a more
relaxed and expansive, professionalized space. But it is still driven by the passion and
enthusiasm of the organizing team and the over 150 on-site volunteers that make the festival
possible. It also lives from the extraordinary care and energy that filmmakers in Japan put into
their art. With over 50 guests from Japan per year it is impossible to present a selection here,
but it is with them, and because of them, that the festival can continue to create bridges
between and across.

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